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Climate activists protested at Burning Man. Then the climate itself crashed the party

Attendees look at a double rainbow over flooding on a desert plain on Sept. 1, after heavy rains turned the annual Burning Man festival site in Nevada's Black Rock Desert into a mud pit.
Julie Jammot
AFP via Getty Images
Attendees look at a double rainbow over flooding on a desert plain on Sept. 1, after heavy rains turned the annual Burning Man festival site in Nevada's Black Rock Desert into a mud pit.

This year's Burning Man bacchanal started and ended with a traffic jam in the Nevada desert.

The first tangle of gridlock was caused by a coalition of activists protesting the alleged complacency among festivalgoers, known as "burners," over the global climate crisis that they argue must be addressed by systemic change beyond the boundaries of the Black Rock desert where the festival is held.

The second, in a twist of extreme I-told-you-so irony, was caused by attendees trying to escape the pop-up city after an unrelenting bout of intense rainfall that experts say is increasingly typical in warming climate.

One could argue that the protesters, whose efforts ahead of the festival were met with ridicule and ire by their fellow partiers, were right. And Patrick Donnelly, does.

Donnelly is the Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group that promotes conservation and fights to stop the extinction and climate crises across public lands in Nevada, Utah and California.

"You can't directly attribute this event to climate change. But we are seeing impacts and extreme weather all over the place now ... so folks can make their own decisions about how they're observing the climate change in front of their very eyes," he told NPR.

Donnelly, who lives in Death Valley along the California-Nevada border, noted a series of extreme climate irregularities across the desert southwest over the summer. During July, portions of Death Valley National Park nearly beat the all-time world heat record with temperatures reaching 129 degrees F. When Tropical Storm Hilary hit late last month, the deluge reshaped the desert landscape. The storm also made a rare foray into southern Nevada, setting records there as well. The mountains west of Las Vegas got up to9 inches of rain, triggering flash flooding.

"There's always been monsoonal activity and passing thunderstorms in the area," Donnelly said, adding that the season typically runs from June to September. "But what's unusual is for a slow moving storm to park overhead and dump a whole inch of rain at once, like it did over the [Black Rock Desert Playa]."

Scientists are extremely confident that greenhouse gas emissions have already caused the Earth to warm with devastating results. In a 2021 report, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that human-caused climate change makes heavy rain more common, especially in North America, Europe and Asia.

Closer to home, the latest national climate assessment from the U.S. Global Change Research Program warns that although the arid Southwest is projected to get drier overall as the Earth warms, the precipitation that does fall is more likely to come in large bursts. When a lot of rain falls in a short period of time, it's more likely to cause floods because the ground can't absorb water quickly enough.

For now, Donnelly said the Black Rock Playa — the dry lake bed where Burning Man takes place every year — "is going to be just fine."

The recent flooding will actually bring to life a vibrant ecosystem of invertebrates that live as desiccated eggs under the surface of the desert, waiting to become hydrated so they can hatch.

It's the Burning Man organizers who are still on site that he said will have to deal with the accumulating effects of the extreme weather over the landscape. Part of their permit from the state stipulates that they leave no trace of their activities on the land.

"It's not just the trash they have to pick up, but they also have to recontour the playa. They basically need to smooth out all of those tracks," Donnelly explained.

"They've got a good track record but they've got a huge amount of work ahead of them," he added.

It will likely continue to get harder.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.